Sgt. Hector Gallegos of the Los Angeles Police Department keeps a Bible in the trunk of his patrol car, under the spare tire, out of the way of the first-aid backpack, the extra ammo, the second shotgun, the beanbag gun and the fire extinguisher. Because he cannot be certain to get the same patrol car every day, he takes the Bible out at the end of his shift and takes it home surreptitiously, the act a secret sacrament. He does not think that Maria knew he had this extra Bible, this small Bible. If she did, she never mentioned it. Hector can hide the little Bible in the palm of one hand and mumble a prayer as he does so.
The other Bible, the Gallegos family Bible, is big and beloved across time. It probably weighs 20 pounds. It is bound between wood covers wrapped in tight leather, faded tawny through at least 15 decades. Old Testament atop New, five inches of scripture clamped tight by a big, brass buckle. Its pages are gilt at the edges and shimmer a dull golden color in the light. It is in here that details of the Gallegos family’s life and faith are recorded, calligraphic monuments to Mexican life in Los Angeles. The earliest entry is the 1853 baptism of Hector’s great-great grandmother, Arcadia, at the Plaza Church. That is only five years after the cessation of the Mexican-American War.
Arcadia grows through the inscriptions. Quinceañera in 1868, marriage a year later, the birth of seven children, the early deaths of three, widowhood, Arcadia’s own old woman’s death in 1919. The big Bible is less creed than archive. In Hector’s lifetime, it has not been tested the way the little Bible has been. The little Bible, the patrol-car Bible, is all business and scripture, 46 Old Testament books preceding 27 New, no annotations, not even any pages deliberately left blank. No notations after Revelation. It is bound in cheap, blue plastic, exactly the same color as Hector’s LAPD uniform. On the flyleaf, he had written “Gallegos, H. Sgt. LAPD Badge 13287.” It is barely 25 years old.
When Hector gets home from a shift, the little Bible goes with his service weapon into his black LAPD gym bag, zippered tight. The bag goes under the nightstand by the bed. The family knows that this bag is off-limits. No one will open it. They know the gun is in there, so they will stay away, and they will not know that the Bible is nestled alongside the pistol. Hector tells himself that even if someone did look in the bag, even if someone did find that little Bible, it would be OK. They would leave it and his service weapon alone. It is a secret and a sacrament, he thinks, and he tells himself that there is nothing shameful about a little, hidden Bible.
Ever since Maria got sick, Hector has taken to a daily ritual before heading off to work. He stands in his briefs before the mirror that hangs on the back of the door in the bathroom, Glock in his dominant left hand, the small Bible cradled in his right. He stands ready to take on all manner of evil, armed with a tool sacred and a tool profane. Upright man plus gun plus Bible, he tells himself, this and the next world made safer — policed — just as he wished it were true for merely believing it so. Sword and shield, Hector thinks to himself, sure that the righteousness of both means power enough, power reinforced. “The kingdom, the power and the glory,” he sometimes whispers as he returns gun and Bible to the bag before leaving the house.
Hetcor keeps the Bible in his patrol car, under the spare tire, for two reasons. It is a talisman, a holy book made into a wish, a way to ride with God and God’s word on the hard streets of Los Angeles. Hector wants angels to ride with him in the City of Angels, and this is, he thinks, his best chance. When he puts the Bible into his patrol car, he kisses it in a soft and Catholic gesture, quick and meaningful all at once. Hector is a religious man, a devout man, but he does not think of himself as susceptible to superstition. Yet he cannot imagine casting aside the Bible or the habit.
Thirty-one years a cop. Four with the Los Angeles School Police Department, which he joined after finishing community college at 21, then 27 years with the LAPD. Light wounds to show for more than three decades sent into harm’s way. A broken jaw acquired when a fellow officer, aiming his baton at a purse-snatcher being restrained, slipped and hit Hector across the face instead. A torn meniscus under his left kneecap, probably the result of squats in the gym at the station, showing off or trying not to show his age, messing around with the younger guys.
The knee hurts in the morning chill of fall and winter, as Hector bends at the trunk of his patrol car at the station. But his are minor injuries, mere irritations that come his way on a dangerous journey. Though he knew it to be true that he was imperfect, Hector considers himself an upright man in body and spirit after 52 years walking to and fro on the earth. His crewcut black hair had grayed at the temples, and his eyes, etched by crow’s feet, stung almost all the time. Near constant and hard blinking washed them with fresh tears and made them feel better for a few seconds.
The other reason Hector keeps the small Bible in its hiding place is more about experimentation than supplication. He is engaged in a theological exercise of his own device. When he rides his LAPD shift without a partner, which happens once or twice a month, he eats his lunch on a bench in MacArthur Park. He parks the patrol car next to a red curb and retrieves a sack lunch and the Bible from the trunk. He is engaged in a biblical trial. He is reading the Bible backward, from Revelation to Genesis. It is a project of two years’ duration already. Hector does this because he wonders if the reversal of scriptural direction will bend the arc of his faith. He thinks it might, but he does not know how it will look or feel. It is a test that he has made for himself, and he wonders if this means that his life has somehow turned backward. He is somewhere about halfway done. He has made it to the Book of Obadiah.
He is amazed by the passage of time in the Bible, from the end times, future, all the way back to the thousands of B.C. years and eventually unto the Garden of Eden itself. This is its own revelation. He had not known this until he began to read backward. He knew B.C. and A.D. as markers of time, of course, and of birth and death, but he did not know all that lay between them. Hector thinks often now of the sheer depth of a simple phrase like “once upon a time.”
Because he rides without a partner on the days he reads his Bible backward, Hector has the entire afternoon to think about what he’s read. He has lately begun to talk to himself in the patrol car, reciting biblical passages aloud, some of them memorized from his youth, others from just that day as he ate his lunch on the park bench. He once absentmindedly hit his radio button as he began to speak — force of habit — and LAPD dispatch heard him say, “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
A month or two ago, as he sat reading the Bible, a homeless man, whom he had seen many times before, approached and asked meekly, “Would you read that good book aloud to me?”
“Yes. What do you want me to read?”
“I am a Job man,” the homeless man said.
Hector thought that he had never in his life heard those five words made into a sentence before.
When it was over, after Hector had read the Book of Job aloud to the homeless man, who lay in a tattered blue blanket on the grass at his feet, the man said, “My tribulations are mine alone, and I will find my way through them as God glories in me so to do.”
Hector did not wish to tell anyone about that time with Job and the homeless man. And even though it wasn’t long ago, he wonders if it might have been a dream instead of something that actually happened at 12:30 one spring afternoon in MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, he and a homeless man wrapped in a bedraggled blue blanket, both wondering about God’s regard for the lowly and the lonesome, the forsaken and the tried.
“Job raked from the ashes,” Hector said aloud in his patrol car while thinking of that day, wondering if the phrase described a man from a little blue Bible, a blue-blanketed homeless man, a blue-uniformed officer of the law, or each at once, in turn?
Hector lives in the San Fernando Valley, in a modest, well-tended home built just after the Second World War. He drives about 40 minutes each way to the station. He leaves his house at 7:15, and he and his gun and the little Bible get home around 6:00 on a good day. He and Maria were married two months short of 35 years, and then she died. They met in the neighborhood and at Santa Rosa, their church, when they were 17. They had one class together in high school (11th grade U.S. history). He married her the day after they had their final exam in that class — she was four months pregnant — and Hector still remembers writing an essay on the history of women’s suffrage, thinking that he would be married to Maria by the end of the next day. They lost that baby at five months, but the marriage, perhaps improbably, took.
Hector’s home is about as old as he is, a red tile and stucco artifact of the Cold War and the suburbia that grew up around the aerospace plants. The LAPD helped him buy the house 20 years ago, through a loan program no longer in existence. Hector and Maria had two children, both of whom came along when the marriage had deepened into comfort and grace, long after the high school romance, the pregnancy and the miscarriage.
“You were made to be mine, lawman,” Maria used to say. “You are a good man, and you bring good to others.”
When Hector got to the Book of Matthew in his project, he realized that Maria had been speaking scripture all along.
Their daughter, Rosina, is 17, angry and wild. She comes and goes; there’s an older boyfriend whom Hector wants to like but does not. Rosina smokes, and Hector wonders if she has booze hidden in the house. The crucible in which she placed impending loss turned expectant grief to rage. Her brother, Angel is 13, meek and sweet and autistic. He has a teacher’s aide with him most of the day in his seventh-grade classroom. Ever since Maria got sick, and especially after she lost her hair, Angel sobs himself to sleep, the sheets damp and wrinkled by his tears. Hector usually crawls into Angel’s bed and holds him as he drifts off.
Rosina looks like her dad, square-headed and square-jawed, fierce and powerful. Hector’s high school nickname had been Olmec; his brother’s had been Toltec. Angel has his mother’s elegant cheekbones and feline slenderness. Hector loves his children with a chronic ache. He can call up that beautiful pain just by thinking of them or saying their names to himself.
Hector has fired his service weapon twice in 31 years as a cop. Once, when a man was beating his daughter at the high school where Hector first worked. The girl’s boyfriend had gotten her pregnant, and somehow her father found out. He drove to the school and pulled his daughter out of the classroom by the hair and dragged her to the football field. “¿Cómo te atreves a traicionarme?” the father yelled at his daughter, and then he began slapping her across the face in blind fury. Hector was a rookie with the school police force then, and he panicked. When it was clear he couldn’t pull the father off the girl, he unholstered his pistol and fired it into one of the tires set up for the football team to run through at practice. The man stopped and fell to the ground, and the girl, thinking her father had been shot, tumbled atop him as a shield.
Ten years later, Hector shot at a pit bull that had chomped onto his partner’s leg in the parking lot behind a dingy auto body shop near Elysian Park. He missed, but the shot scared the dog off. It ran into the street and one of the stubby school buses for the disabled kids ran it over and killed it. His partner got a permanent limp and a settlement from the city and the dog owner’s insurance company. He quit the LAPD and moved to Idaho. He and Hector still exchange Christmas cards, and he has stopped teasing Hector about his poor marksmanship.
Behind the police station is a dilapidated two-story apartment building with eight units and no parking. A family from Guatemala is crammed into one of the apartments, upstairs in the back: father, mother, six kids. The dad is a day laborer. Hector sees him waiting for the bus most mornings, probably headed to a Home Depot or Orchard Supply in Glendale or the Valley to look for work. There is a car, a beat-up old Honda Civic, but he doesn’t drive it much. The bus is reasonably reliable and cheap.
About 10 days ago, the father was trying to teach his wife to drive, probably so that she could go out and look for some kind of work. He was helping her shimmy the car from its parallel parking slot and onto the street. She was at the wheel, and he was guiding her from the side of the car. As he stepped behind her, to see if she had room to come back another foot or so, she touched the gas pedal, and the car inched closely to him. She panicked, hit the accelerator hard, and crushed her husband to death between the car and a paneled white van.
Hector organized a Saturday car wash at the station to raise money for the family. He raised $156.34. All the money went into a clasped manila folder with “Guat. Family” written on it with a green Sharpie. A television reporter who heard about the accident and the car wash came to the station. As Hector walked her to the apartment building at the end of his shift, he couldn’t help but think that she looked a little like Maria. After he pointed out the apartment upstairs in the back, the reporter gave him a $20 bill for the family.
He walked back to the police station and used his keys to open the gates and the station doors, instead of just putting the money in his wallet to bring back the next day. He went to the watch commander’s desk and put the $20 in the “Guat. Family” envelope, thinking how close he’d come to taking it to the bar on the corner to turn it into three shots of Sauza, which he knew would cost $18. It was another test, one he had failed more than once. Hector put a $10 bill from his wallet into the envelope. He thought of Job, and he thought he was Job. He wondered why he had been forsaken, but he stopped when he thought of the blanketed homeless man and the woman who backed a beat-up Honda over her husband. He thought of Maria dying at home, and he cursed under his breath.
Before she got sick and died, Maria ironed Hector’s LAPD uniform every night, Sunday through Thursday. On Saturdays if he had a Sunday shift. He had four of almost everything. Four blue uniform shirts. Four pairs of blue LAPD slacks. Four pairs of black LAPD socks. Four white undershirts. Two pairs of soft-soled black shoes. Each night, Maria would iron a clean uniform shirt, a T-shirt, a pair of pants, even socks. The station had a laundry room with two civilian employees, but Maria wouldn’t hear of it. “Your uniform smells like you,” she said, adding with a smile, “and this is how I can straighten you out.” Sometimes, Maria would say that if anything bad happened to Hector she would still iron his uniform just so she could feel his presence, smell what he smelled like and give him some starch. “Ironing your uniform feels like I’m holding you,” she said.
Maria had a recurring dream about the ironing. In the dream, Hector had been killed on duty, but she still ironed his uniform every night in the house emptied of him. Sometimes in the dream, Hector would jump out from under the ironing board, laughing, as if he’d played a clever joke on her. Sometimes he never appeared, and Maria would just wake up afraid. Maria got cervical cancer. Treatments and surgery did not help, and she died five months to the day after the diagnosis. Three days ago, the day of Maria’s wake, Hector spoke to a group of high school students who came to the station to learn about police work. He did not try to get out of it. The watch commander asked him to do it, it was in his calendar and he drove to the station straight from the house.
Twenty high school students sat in the briefing room, fidgety and nervous, most of them bored. Hector told them how long he’d been a police officer, and he told them about what he did each day. “At night, when I get home,” Hector said to them, “and I take off this uniform, I am just like you.” He was not sure he believed it, as he wanted to add, “but I have an automatic weapon and a little blue Bible, and I bet none of you have either.”
“Half of you are looking at me thinking that you hate the police,” Hector said, which seemed to surprise the students. They perked up, as if none of them had given this any thought. “But when I’m not a police officer, I’m just like you,” he said again. “See this uniform? It gets ironed every night, just as some of you iron your own clothes,” he said, knowing that he would do the ironing now, undoubtedly in a rush out the door in the morning. He did not iron well; he had little practice and no patience for it. As he spoke to the students, he could feel the wrinkles of his unironed T-shirt roll against his skin. He realized that he was probably frightening the students a little bit, and he felt ashamed. “I have always wanted to be a police officer,” he told them, “from the time I was a little boy. It is the hardest job I could imagine, but I wouldn’t want to do anything else. It is hard, I have been tested by it,” he said, “but it is the life I’ve chosen.” He almost said, “My wife died.”
As he took off his uniform that night, Hector knew he was not like those students at the station. He knew it was the job that had changed him, that it was the job that had made him. That and Maria and Maria’s death. He held Angel through the night, thinking that this now, too, was his job. He allowed himself to say job and Job out loud. “Job, job, Job.” And, “thus it is.”
Today, the day of the funeral, arrived still and quiet. Even the light, creeping from the dawn, seemed without motion as it peeked into Angel’s bedroom and awakened Hector. He listened to a few morning doves waking and calling to one another from the giant magnolia across the street. Mostly, though, he heard crying. Weeping intermittent. Whoever it was — he knows it was Rosina — was trying to stifle the sobs so that they came out pinched and gasping, metronomic. Hector could not decide whether to be vigilant first as father or as police officer. He imagined Rosina, it must be Rosina, with her hands to her mouth, eyes closed, leaning against the wall of the hallway near the entrance to the living room.
He walked there, careful not to step on a toy or scattered shoe. Rosina stood barefoot in jeans and a gray T-shirt. He went to her. But she was not crying. The gasping sound was the hiss of steam as the iron rolled over the pants and jacket of his black suit. The iron was crying, not Rosina.
Rosina finished the jacket with one more stroke across a crease. She stood the iron up and lifted her father’s pants and jacket from the board and handed them to him, warm and starchy.
“I ironed your suit.”
“Thank you, mija,” Hector said, and he kissed her softly and quickly on the forehead.
Rosina glanced up at him, then quickly looked down and walked back toward her room.
“Take the big Bible today,” she said. “Take it every day from now on.”
He knew not to do it, but Hector looked under the ironing board anyway, because he knew that Maria would dream about him being under there. He wanted to find her as he crouched and craned his neck sideways. But no one was there.
He draped the warm clothes over his left arm and walked to the sideboard in the dining room. He got the big Bible. He was strong enough to hold it in his right hand, gun in left, as he stood arrayed before the bathroom mirror. It was not the weight of the Bible itself that he felt, though it was heavy. It was the weight of his family and his history. Hector felt it, felt he had to protect it and felt protected by it. He knew, and Rosina knew, that he had to bring the end of Maria to its pages.
Dressed in his funeral suit, Hector walked out of his house to his car. He bent down to open the trunk — his knee made a click in protest, and he had to kneel briefly because of the pain. He shut the trunk quickly. He opened the passenger door, and carefully put the Bible on the passenger seat. He closed the door, blinked his eyes hard and walked back to the house to gather his children for the day ahead.
William Deverell is Director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West and Professor of History at the University of Southern California. He writes on the history and culture of the 19th and 20th century American West. His short story, “Evangel,” was published in Exposition Review, Vol. 1, IX Lives, in 2016.
Image: “Praying Hands” by Jesse Rhynard